It’s pleasing to discover that Michael Palin is not nice all the time. He is particularly irrritated by his neighbour Mr O’Rourke, who would not have been out of place in Paddington. O’Rourke claims he once doubled for Michael Caine in a movie: ‘I’ve got eyes just like his you see. It was only in long-shot, of course.’ Palin mutters afterwards to his diary: ‘I really wonder where he gets it from.’ The first set of Palin’s journals, Diaries 1969-79, is subtitled The Python Years. By the end of Diaries 1988-98 (Travelling To Work) he is no longer the young man in a hurry: he is a staple of BBC prime time television, the safe pair of hands taking viewers on a series of international journeys, and not over-modest about it. The early diaries highlight what a cultural force Monty Python was. But bafflingly, by 1998, Palin is exercised by the lack of New Year’s Honours for them all: ‘What services does one have to give to be recognised? I can only assume the Pythons are on some sort of blacklist, otherwise the group’s work would have been recognised as having as universal effect on TV comedy as the Beatles did on music.’ This is a distinctly odd position, one would have thought, for such avowedly anti-establishment figures. Perhaps being adored by George Harrison (who crops up quite a bit) brings you closer to God, as it were. The early diary captures London in a period of great change: Docklands is waste ground, Covent Garden ceases to be a working market. IRA bombings are a recurrent theme in both books. Palin made a staggering amount of money in the seventies, for example buying a property in Neal’s Yard with Terry Gilliam, ‘one of the best things that could have happened to a lad with £70,000 to spend’. £70,000! In 1977! Some mentions are made of tax avoidance schemes (they are not called that, of course). No wonder John Cleese likes his expensive cars. Palin notes that Pink Floyd used to break from recording at Abbey Road to watch Python on TV – and the parallels with rock groups are instructive. There is much creative tension within the Monty Python team: arguments over who is writing how much and of what quality, plus grudging admiration for solo projects while Cleese is always consciously breaking away. Yet the one thing Palin doesn’t really do is tension. For instance, he is insightful on Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen movie (‘the whole misses the binding of a strong story’) but I wonder if he actually said that to him over one of their quiet pints at The Flask in Highgate. The entries reveal something of the media culture of the day: meeting Leonard Bernstein and John Cale in New York one night, then another day seeing the Goodies ‘all in almost identical blue anoraks’ walking ahead of them: ‘Enjoyed ourselves immensely, shouting loud and coarsely after them…and watching them deliberately not turn around or quicken their pace in the face of this volley.’ The creative process is notoriously difficult*: the execrable Cleese movie Fierce Creatures actually seems like a good piece of work to Palin when he’s making it. The reshoots give him pause for thought: ‘What sort of revisionism is going on I dread to think.’ It was still crap. Not so Palin’s own travelogues such as Pole to Pole. Watching those programmes again – the same goes for Clive James’ Postcards series – is a TV education. The visual grammar of them is different – a little more dreamy, discursive and disconnected than anything you might see today. Less obviously thrusting, more leisurely. They were only made a couple of decades ago but it seems like a different world. They are undeniably the product of a coherent vision, like it or not. However, diaries – even with a well-known authorial voice in your head – can sometimes sound a tad Pooterish, whoever writes them. It is unfortunate that, when Palin dashes back from south-east Asia to see his wife, who is convalescing from an emergency brain operation, he seems overly concerned about his own sore throat. But he is a talented writer/performer. In Alan Bleasdale’s GBH, Palin was a fine dramatic – rather than comic – actor. He tells his diary that he yearns subconsciously ‘for the Robert de Niro roles’.
*Palin was in You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan (his part was cut). Lucky escape.